England – Dan Cole
This was a tough decision given the initial impact Joe Launchbury had in the Autumn Internationals, whilst Tom Wood and the ever-dynamic Manu Tuilagi were also strong contenders. After what seemed like hours of deliberation I decided to go for Cole, someone who I wax lyrical about on Twitter every time I see him play.
Cole has come a long way in a short time, especially when you consider the fact props don’t tend to reach their peak until their late 20s/early 30s. He is a destructive scrummager who can hold his own against any international loose-head and is as reliable a ball carrier as they come.
Perhaps his most underrated attribute however is his ability at the breakdown. He plays like a back row forward when the ball is on the ground and, in my opinion, turns the ball over more effectively than any other front-row forward in world rugby.
France – Wesley Fofana
France are a team littered with an abundance of talent in their pack, with stars such as Louis Picamoles, Thierry Dusautoir and Pascal Papé to name but a few. Going against my traditional preference for forwards, I opted for Fofana, who is as exciting a back as I can currently think of in world rugby.
The centre burst onto the international scene in last year’s Six Nations when he scored four tries for Les Bleus and displayed the searing pace and intelligent running lines he has become known for.
He comes into the Six Nations on the back of good form for his club side, Clermont Auvergne, playing especially well in their Heineken Cup campaign. He could prove to be the perfect foil for the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud outside of him, and should prove critical to France’s Grand Slam hopes.
Ireland – Craig Gilroy
The fact that Gilroy has been left out of the Wolfhounds squad for tonight’s match against the Saxons makes it tempting to think that he might be in the frame for a starting berth next weekend. Certainly, given Gilroy’s form for Ulster, he should at least be in the squad.
Both Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll were enticing options, but with Tommy Bowe missing the competition through injury, the time is nigh for Gilroy to make an impact on the international scene.
Since the Shane Horgan/Denis Hickie era, I have been unconvinced by Ireland’s wingers. With the exceptions of Luke Fitzgerald and Bowe, they have struggled to find any depth in the position, with both Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls impressing more at centre. Gilroy looks primed to buck this trend and help Ireland usher in the looming post-O’Driscoll era.
Italy – Sergio Parisse
This is certainly the most unsurprising pick I’ve made, and as much as I would like to highlight some uncapped youngster ready to take Italian rugby by storm, all of the Azzurri’s hopes do tend to live and die with Parisse.
The back row forward is an exceptionally gifted rugby player and is certainly the best number eight in Europe, if not the world.
He often seems omnipresent for Italy, and they will need him to be so again this year if they are to live up to expectations after a promising Autumn.
Scotland – Tim Visser
Scotland’s most troubling problem over recent years has been their inability to convert territory and possession into tries, and the solution, in a word, could be Visser.
The Dutch-born flyer has been scoring tries for fun for his club side Edinburgh, and after two tries on his home debut for Scotland against the world champions New Zealand, many are hopeful he can continue this trend on the international scene.
Clamours for a Lions starting spot and that he is Scotland’s try-scoring salvation may be somewhat premature given that he has just five caps, but his performance in the Six Nations could yet justify both of those claims. The big question will be whether or not he sees the ball enough against tough defences like England and France to be as effective as he hopes to be.
Wales – Justin Tipuric
Another tough decision, and ignoring the likes of Eli Walker and George North was difficult. Tipuric’s excellent form for the Ospreys, along with the ensuing calls from many for him to start at seven for both Wales and the Lions, were enough to force my hand.
Sam Warburton is one of the best players in North Hemisphere rugby, so for experts to call for Tipuric to be selected ahead of him, or to shuffle him to the blindside to accommodate the Osprey, is truly haughty praise.
Whether he starts or features from the bench, Tipuric’s dynamism at the breakdown will be sorely needed for Wales, as they look to bounce back from a very disappointing autumn and challenge for the Six Nations title.
By Alex Shaw